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Secrecy around homeless deaths is grotesque because so many are preventable

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Faces on Places: A Grotesque Tour of Toronto by Terry Murray (Anansi Press, 2006) is one of my favourite books about this city. It’s a handsome pocketbook, a guide to Toronto’s old buildings and the stone menagerie that inhabit them. Did you know that gargoyles, griffins, winged lions, angels, gods and goddesses, kings and queens, deer and polar bears have been watching over Toronto for more than a century? 

In his forward to the book, Christopher Hume writes: “Toronto is a city of secrets. It reveals itself slowly, bit by bit, detail by detail.”  I live and work in downtown Toronto so I almost always walk everywhere. I often choose my route in order to sneak a glance upwards at one of the historic stone legends atop a building. One of my favourites is the gargoyle atop the Jarvis Street Baptist Church.

Toronto is a city of secrets and these days, as I walk my city’s streets I am quietly noting another history.

I pass the parking garage on Adelaide where Garland S was found frozen to death.

I walk by the hotel on Bay Street, north of the Greyhound bus station, where Brian B died in his sleep, having rented a room for the night to take a break from the church basement program where he slept on the floor.

I seek out the steps of the synagogue in Kensington Market where Eddie F was found dead, only hours after he was discharged from Toronto Western Hospital.

I am thankful for the staff in St. Michael’s Hospital, known as ‘Toronto’s urban angel’, where James Kagoshima and hundreds of other homeless men and women have died, dying homeless due to cancers, heart disease, the cold, fire.

Today I sought out a specific location. It is the Bank of Montreal’s bank machine vestibule at King and Yonge where John Massie sought shelter, later dying from third-degree burns to 80% of his body. I meet Bonnie Briggs, the founder of the Homeless Memorial Project. We went inside to get the manager’s card. I’ve decided I have to write him and Mr. William Downe, the President and Chief Executive Officer of BMO Financial Group. It’s not my first time at the site. I went there the morning after Massie was burned and taken to St. Michael’s Hospital. There was no yellow police tape. No signs of an investigation. No CSI team. No signage from the bank acknowledging the tragedy. No flowers, just cleaners, and an industrial fan to eliminate all the traces of smoke, the burned clothing and flesh. Only the gargoyles, watching from above, would have seen what was to become another one of Toronto’s dirty little secrets, another homeless death. The coroner called it ‘misadventure.’  Shelters were full that night and church basements overflowing. There was no 24-hour warming centre. City-funded outreach services were forbidden to provide survival supplies, which would include hot food, sleeping bags and blankets. This, I find grotesque.

Postscript: I wrote the above 7 years ago during my Atkinson Economic Justice Fellowship.  I have so many new Toronto death locations to add - 237 in fact. They include the bus shelter at Yonge and Dundas, the City’s Peter Street referral centre, Eastminister Out of the Cold, University Settlement House’s Out of the Cold, the Don River. This week I will make a special visit to the alley on Walton Street, in front of the Chelsea Hotel, where Brad Chapman was found, and then to my alma mater Toronto General Hospital where he died.

The grotesque scope of this tragedy has now been told in an investigative report here:


The conditions inside the Out of the Cold program and City of Toronto warming centres have also been exposed this week in this report Out in the Cold. The Crisis in Toronto’s Shelter System. You can find it here:


If you would like to help us honour and speak out against the deaths of homeless men, women and children please visit this site to learn more. More importantly, join whenever you can, in protest and campaigns to fight for the right to shelter and housing. All three levels of government have a responsibility to act.



Photo credit: Cathy Crowe


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